By Kristel Thornell

© Joi Ong

In the first Clarice Beckett landscape I saw, two trams were passing one another in a milky, bluish haze. The simple scene was somehow recognizably of the early twentieth century, and yet timeless. I had never heard of this Australian, who lived from 1887 to 1935, working for most of the interwar years with breathtaking stamina—despite much criticism for not conforming to the artistic fashions of the day—before she was largely forgotten for decades. Beckett’s paintings are often resolutely spare. They show straightforward stretches of city and suburban road, seaside views, country fields. What is involving and even transcendent about them? Her wondrous restraint and instinct for the moody merging of tones generate atmospheres that are resonant without being quite fathomable. A haunting airiness. The viewer’s imagination is teased beyond those crepuscular streets, or those plain telegraph poles against a rainy sky and sea, the landscapes seeming to only barely belong to the physical world.

Beckett’s quietly heady paintings strike me as images of reverie, exalted introspection, contained yearning. I fancied they also represented the shoreline mingling history and fantasy where the writing of Night Street occurred. I knew I couldn’t have written a novel that kept strict faith with biographical fact. It felt necessary to try to hold the stark facts of her life in a gaze as soft-focused as the one that produced some of the most dreamlike, open-ended meditations on landscape in Australian art.

For more about Thornell and her appearance at IFOA, click here.

Five Questions with… Ayesha Chatterjee

Poet Ayesha Chatterjee will appear at IFOA on Sunday, October 28. You can also catch her at IFOA Markham on October 23.

© Maayan Ziv

IFOA: You were born in India and have lived in Germany, the USA and now Canada. How does place function in your poetry?

Chatterjee: My poetry tends to be visual, so I use place as a prop a lot. The colours and fabric tend to vary, depending on where the poem is set. I’m also a different person in different countries and I think that comes through in my poetry as well.

IFOA: Did you write as a child, and if so what did you write?

Chatterjee: I’ve been “writing” since I was about 6 years old. I’d dictate to my mother; silly little stories about Bobby the Battery and my little kitten and things like that. I started writing poetry when I was about nine. I found poetry easier than prose, it came to me more naturally (which is why I always wanted to be a novelist). I was very shy about having other people read my poems, though. My parents would ask me to show my latest “work” to their friends and I’d leave the room while they were reading it, because I couldn’t bear to hear them talking about it.

IFOA: Tell us about one poet whose work has influenced your own.

Chatterjee: Emily Dickinson. Which is odd, because I had never even heard of her until I was at university in America. There isn’t a single extraneous word in Dickinson’s poetry. It’s like haiku. She can write a universe in a sentence.

IFOA: What are your favourite and least favourite words – today, at least?

Chatterjee: Obfuscate and viral in that order.

IFOA: Finish this sentence: If I had only known that…

Chatterjee: I’d have a ginger cat who was a thief, perhaps I wouldn’t have named him MaCavity. Would that have changed him?

IFOA: Bonus question: International Festival of Authors in one word:

Chatterjee: Cornucopia.

For more about Chatterjee, visit or readings. org.

Jess Walter on #BeautifulRuins and how writing is like building snowmans

The incredible Jess Walter took some time to chat with us before hopping on a plane and flying to Toronto for IFOA. If you missed it, here’s our recap via Storify.

All books are lovely failures.

Walter will appear in two fantastic IFOA events this weekend: a reading/interview on Saturday, October 27, and a reading Sunday, October 28.

Saul: Novels have the best form out there

By Iain Reid

The first question Mark Kingwell asked John Ralston Saul at the Fleck Dance Theatre on Sunday afternoon was: “Why fiction now?”

John Ralston Saul with Mark Kingwell at IFOA 2012 ©

The two writers, familiar to one another and seemingly at ease, were alone on stage. Saul, who has returned to fiction with his novel, Dark Diversions, replied he’s always considered himself a novelist first and an essayist second. He believes fact-based work typically doesn’t last the way fiction or poetry does. Ideas for him are like characters. “Novels have the best form out there,” he said.

The crowd learned this book was 20 years in the making. Saul shared stories of his early days of writing. It was in France where he wrote his first novel at 29. The novel was attacked by certain papers. He was troubled at first but began to find this extreme reaction fun and necessary. “Part of being a writer is being under attack,” he said.

For this book Saul used a first-person narrator, a form, he told Kingwell, he typically avoids. He explained he usually finds first person narration to be a thin veil for the actual writer. “This narrator doesn’t want to be the subject. The subject is what he’s stumbling upon.”

Their discussion touched on the style of the book, the twists and misunderstandings throughout. Kingwell added, “I think there’s also a lot about agency.”

Saul reiterated this was an interview and not a reading but did spontaneously read a few lines from the book. He picked a section to highlight its humour. It seemed his only concern for the event was that it might be too serious. After all, “the book is a dark comedy,” he said.

“It’s a very funny book,” replied Kingwell.

As it had in previous events, the topic of originality and how each writer is influenced by earlier works and authors came up. “There are all these tentacles attached to you as a writer,” he said.

As Kingwell wrapped up the session he made a reference to Gogol and his relevance to Saul’s own work. Saul looked at him for a moment across the coffee table between them. “You’re good,” he said.

John Ralston Saul will appear in a reading and discussion at IFOA Windsor on October 26.

Five Questions with… Emily St. John Mandel

Emily St. John Mandel will participate in a Tuesday, October 23 round table discussion, The Novel as a Window on Society, and a reading Saturday, October 27.

IFOA: Which one of your characters—from your short stories and all three
novels—did you have the most fun creating, and why?

Mandel: I think my favourite of all my characters is Sasha from The Lola Quartet. She’s a gambling addict who tries very hard not to gamble, and I think of her as an entirely decent and stoic person. But the character who was the most fun to create would probably be Gavin, from the same book. I liked writing about a man who thinks he was born in the wrong decade and is absolutely committed to living like a character from a Raymond Chandler story even though he lives in 21st century suburbia.

IFOA: If you weren’t a writer, what would you be doing?

Mandel: I’m not at all sure. But I love travel and I’ve always been interested in politics and in international affairs, so perhaps if I weren’t a writer I’d have tried to maneuver my way into a diplomatic career of some kind.

IFOA: You are often described as a “literary noir” writer. What does this
moniker mean to you?

Mandel: I’ve always set out to write literary fiction, but with the strongest possible narrative drive, and an unexpected side effect of this is that it turns out if you write very plot-driven fiction, it pushes you over to the edge of genre and people start calling you a crime writer, or a mystery writer, or similar. I like the literary noir label, though, and think that it’s probably accurate for the three novels I’ve published. I think of noir as fiction suffused with a certain style, and perhaps a certain darkness, but I believe all of my books contain hope.

IFOA: Tell us about one book you read that changed your life.

Mandel: I don’t believe my life has ever been changed by a book, but I’ve often read books that have changed the way I see the world. Adrien Nicole LeBlanc’s Random Family was one of those; it changed the way I looked at urban poverty.

IFOA: Finish this sentence: The Internet is…

Mandel: …useful in small doses.

IFOA: Bonus question: International Festival of Authors in one word:

Mandel: Wonderful.

For more about Mandel, visit or check out her IFOA listings at

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